BALKAN BLOG: Women's political representation or real political power?

BALKAN BLOG: Women's political representation or real political power?
Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic (left) and Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrid Simonyte (right) have both appointed gender-balanced cabinets.
By Clare Nuttall in Glasgow December 28, 2020

Central and Southeast Europe now accounts for a third of the tiny number of states worldwide that have gender-balanced cabinets — but higher female representation in politics doesn’t necessarily equate to women holding real power. 

Two more Central and Southeast Europe countries are now among around nine worldwide that have gender-balanced cabinets after the appointments of new governments headed by Ana Brnabic in Serbia and Ingrid Simonyte in Lithuania, where approximately half of the ministers are women. This follows the appointment of a gender-balanced cabinet in Albania two years earlier. 

The appointments by Brnabic and Simonyte come after a slump in female participation in politics in the early transition years that has since been gradually reversed in most of the post-socialist space. However, both under socialism and in the decades since then female representation in politics has not necessarily equated to women holding real power.  

Having more women in power can help improve the quality of government by promoting bipartisanship, equality and stability, according to a report from think tank the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), published alongside its latest Women’s Power index. This comes on top of the way female politicians can encourage gender equality by promoting it directly, as well as through policies that help women to play a full role in public life in areas such as health, education and childcare. 

The CFR report cites a study on the US senate that shows women are more likely to cross party lines to find common ground, reducing costly political deadlocks. Women’s inclusion also increases stability, says the CFR, referencing another study showing that when women’s representation in parliament increases by just 5%, the country is almost five times less likely to respond to an international crisis with violence. 

There have, however, been questions raised as to “whether gender equality is promoted substantially or only symbolically,” Dr Lilijana Cickaric, principal research fellow and head of the Center for Sociology and Anthropology Research at the Institute of Social Sciences in Belgrade, told bne IntelliNews, commenting on the situation in Serbia. 

In the last three decades, women in Serbia have “come a long way from complete marginalisation in political life to half of the seats in the Serbian government”. However, she adds, women always occupy lower and less influential political positions compared to men. 

Addressing the Serbian parliament on October 28, the day her new government was voted in by MPs, Brnabic announced that her cabinet would have 21 departments and two ministers without portfolios with “as many as 11 women ministers who will lead some of the most complex departments in the government”. 

Two of the five deputy prime ministers — Energy and Mining Minister Zoran Mihajlovic and Culture and Information Minister Maja Gojkovic — are female, as are the minsters for economy, environmental protection, trade, tourism and telecoms, justice, public administration and local self-government, human and minority rights and social dialogue, European integration and employment, veteran and social affairs. Male politicians have been appointed to head the ministries responsible for defence, finance, foreign affairs and the interior, among others. 

A month later, Simonyte was appointed prime minister in Lithuania after the conservative Homeland Union won the general election and formed a centre-right coalition with the Freedom Movement and Liberal Party. She was helped to victory by widespread criticism of the incumbent Saulius Skvernelis for the authorities’ failure to contain the coronavirus pandemic, as well as on job creation and rising debt. Simonyte also promised a tougher line on neighbouring Belarus that has been racked by protests since the August 2020 presidential election. 

Speaking to Reuters after her election victory, Simonyte said: “I want to show, by the example of myself and my female colleagues, that not only men can be at the top, but also women.

“A lot of our society is defined from the traditional upbringing, which tells girls to be nurses or teachers, while boys are set to become leaders and decision makers … These things are slow to change on their own,” she added. 

Her appointments include Gintare Skaiste as finance minister, Agne Bilotaite as interior minister, Evelina Dobrovolska as justice minister, Ausrine Armonaite as economy and innovation minister and Monika Navickiene as social security and labour minister. With five male ministers in charge of the ministries of agriculture, culture, defence, energy, environment and foreign affairs, including Simonyte herself this makes a 50:50 balanced cabinet. 

The new government is not just gender balanced, but relatively youthful as well, with the average age of its members just over 40. The appointment of Dobrovolska in particular was questioned due to her young age — she is just 32 years old — and relative lack of experience, as well as her visible tattoos. 

Having women in top positions is not a novelty in Lithuania; the country has already had two female prime ministers and one president, Dalia Grybauskaite who served for two terms. On the other hand, the outgoing government led by the Farmers and Greens Union at one point had the EU’s only all-male cabinet. The new government does not, however, reflect the composition of the parliament, which has 103 male and just 38 female MPs, making it only very slightly more balanced than the previous parliament. 

Things are rather different in Serbia, which currently has the highest representation of women in parliament across the Central and Southeast Europe region after adopting a 40% quota in February 2020. In the region, female representation in parliament is lowest in Hungary at just 12%. 

The CFR’s Women Power index shows that as of September only seven countries had 50% or more women in their national cabinets, with more than 60% in Finland and Spain. From the CEE region, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama had eight women ministers out of a total of 15 after his 2018 reshuffle. Previously, Moldova’s former prime minister (now president) Maia Sandu led a short-lived government composed of five men and five women ministers in 2019. 

This is significant in a region where after women were relatively well represented in government bodies during the socialist era (though not at top levels), female participation in policies fell sharply in the early years of transition, and only gradually revived over the following decades. 

In Yugoslavia, female participation in executive bodies was around 25-30% (though again, only one woman held the position of prime minister during this time) but this dropped with the breakup of the federation and the descent into war. According to Tanja Ignjatovic of the Autonomous Women’s Centre in Belgrade, in the last two decades the lowest percentage of women in government was just 9% immediately after the democratic changes in 2001, and since then it has fluctuated between 10% and 25%. 

As Cickaric pointed out, having more women in government doesn’t necessarily translate to gains in gender equality in society or women-friendly policies. Moreover, over the last eight years, power has been concentrated in the figure of President Aleksandar Vucic, and Brnabic is seen as his loyal deputy. Ignjatovic described the decision to install a gender-balanced cabinet as a “short-term decision of the president”; the plan was initially announced by Vucic, who has already decided that the government will remain in place only until early elections in April 2022. 

“The current political and social context, as well as the actual state of women’s rights in various spheres of public and private life in Serbia, are not indicative of important changes of citizens’ awareness or ideological motivation of the ruling political party. I wouldn’t say that this is Serbia preparing for accession to the EU – since we are seriously lagging behind with the harmonisation of our laws and adoption of strategic documents in this sphere – which is also confirmed in the EC Serbia 2020 Report,” she told bne IntelliNews. “Rather, this is a short-term decision of the President of the Republic – because early parliamentary elections have already been announced for April 2022.”

“Women in the executive branch will follow orders and act in live wth the politics and decisions of the [ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS)] and their leader and current president of the Republic of Serbia,” said Cickaric. 

“Women themselves reman blind to the consequences of gender discrimination and loyally support the decision adopted by their party, ignoring the interests and needs of women. This scenario is present in all Serbian institutions, where we face the major phenomena of women in high positions often being deprived of political power and influence which rightfully belong to them and are replaced by party loyalty and subservience.” 

When it comes to policy, among the policies outlined by Brnabic in her keynote speech to the Serbian parliament on October 28 were investment in health and education, including pre-school education. But this was only a small part of the government’s agenda whose six main priorities were the fight against COVID-19, defending Serbia’s interests in Kosovo, fighting organised crime, maintaining Serbia's independence and independent decision-making, EU-mandated reforms and strengthening the economy. Just as Brnabic has not used her position as the first openly gay prime minister in the region to promote LGBTQ rights, her agenda as the head of a gender-balanced cabinet had relatively little aimed at women. 

“There are no expectations that the policy of this government will differ from that of the president of the republic,” said Ignjatovic. She gave the example of the lack of response from the ministers of human rights and information when a female journalist was exposed to attacks on TV stations close to the authorities. Another example was the appeal by the Autonomous Women’s Centre and other NGOs to female MPs not to vote for the Law on the Rights of Veterans, Disabled Veterans, Civilian Invalids of War and Their Family Members because it does not recognise women who survived wartime sexual violence as civilian victims of war. “Not a single MP submitted an amendment or debated on behalf of the victims of ‘war rape’. Serbia is the only country in the region that does not grant victims of sexual violence in war the right to remedy and reparation,” she commented. 

Following the 40% quota, “will the women parliamentarians really break through the glass celling and adequately represent the interests of women? No,” said Cickaric. “We are witnessing that it has not resulted in adequate implementation of gender issues in the decision-making process, modernisation of the parliamentary environment, restoring confidence in democratic elections and representative democracy. Unfortunately, everything is the opposite. The same goes for the prime minster and the new female ministers in government.” 

Yet the moves in both Serbia and Lithuania to install gender-balanced cabinets come in direct contrast to the blatant attacks on women and sexual minorities in Hungary and Poland. While female representation in politics has been gradually increasing across most of the region, it is the lowest in Hungary where only 9% of MPs are women in a parliament dominated by self-styled illiberal democrat Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party that has also banned gender studies and used emergency powers during the pandemic to further restrict LBGTQ rights. Meanwhile, Poland also moved recently to strip women of their rights by banning abortion in all but the most extreme cases. Against such a backdrop the fact that the Central and Southeast Europe region now has around one third of all the gender-balanced governments in the world is remarkable.